unusual flavors in picture books…a list of five

Quite a lot of picture books feature familiar flavors — going to bed, making a new friend, celebrating the seasons, starting school, or any of a dozen other common storylines.
There’s not a thing wrong with those flavors.  But sometimes you just want a taste of something different.

Today’s fivesome contains atypical picture book stories that I loved. A couple of them are much quieter than usual. One features an extraordinarily wry sense of humor. Two serve up a wallop of imagination. We’ll start with those:

Sato the Rabbit, written and illustrated by Yuki Ainoya, translated by Michael Blaskowsky
originally published in Japan in 2006; English edition by Enchanted Lion in 2021

We can always count on Enchanted Lion to bring us complex, out-of-the-box flavors and this extraordinarily imaginative account is a perfect example.

Sato is a little boy who one day simply turns into a rabbit. Just as remarkable as his new puffball tail and tall pink ears are the adventures that await him! Each of Sato’s escapades comprises a sort of tiny chapter, just a few pages long, succinct in text and awash with colorful, enchanting artwork.

Sato waters his garden with the help of a pond who blows water through a long, long, long hose. He fishes for stars in a meteor shower and brightens the whole landscape with their glow from atop his observatory. The walnuts he cracks open sometime contain the most astonishing scenes, the ice he gathers from the cold winter forest creates truly special concoctions when it melts, and his watermelon boat is a wonder to behold.

That’s just a wee taste of what’s in store for you in this fanciful, fairytale-happy book.  I was entranced. The trim size, lovely paper, gorgeous colors, and nice plump thickness (it’s 60 pages long!) all add to the wondrous experience we fall into when we meet Sato.  If you’ve been a Chirri & Chirra fan, you’ll likely enjoy Sato’s equally marvelous life. Ages 4 and up.

We Became Jaguars, written by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Woodrow White
published in 2021 by Chronicle Books

Grandmother has come for a visit.  Her small grandson has met her only once before as she lives far away.  His face is a picture of uncertainty, hesitation, unease. Then his parents step out the door. The two of them are alone, and what does Grandmother do?

She gets down on all fours…and…growls!  Her hands arch, paw-like. Her red fingernails look spookily claw-like. It’s all quite alarming until Grandmother says, “Let’s be jaguars.” And instantly the little boy leaps inside the world of vivid imagination right along with her.

Then let the rumpus begin! These two plunge 100% into the world of make-believe, stalking prey through the jungle, climbing to the top of rugged mountains, lapping from silvery, moonlit lakes.

Their immense adventure finally ends when the little boy remembers he’s got to go to school! Even then, this extraordinary grandmother’s rules-schmools spin on the world and her lucky grandson’s outlook remain untamed. A wildly imaginative romp for ages 4 and up.

I Dream of a Journey, written and illustrated by Akiko Miyakoshi, translated by Cathy Hirano
originally published in Japan in 2018; English edition 2020 by Kids Can Press

Turning towards the two quieter stories on today’s list, this first is by an author/illustrator I have come to love. I will pick up anything with her name on it knowing I’m in for a lovely treat.

Miyakoshi’s gorgeous, soft-as-flannel illustration work caresses each page, evoking a sense of hush and solitude right from the opening endpapers. The story, told in first person, is of a keeper of a small hotel. His dapper vest and bowtie, the room keys hanging in tidy rows on their wooden frame, an occupant’s piece of vintage luggage, all immediately place us in an earlier, genteel era.

This particular hotel owner constantly hears tales of far-off places from his guests, yet he has never left his home town. He yearns to travel, dreams of the places he’d go, the people he’d encounter. The grey-scale of his workaday-world receives a warm blush of color as we explore his dream world.

Alas, his work at the hotel ties him down. Yet one day…one day he’ll surprise everyone and grab ahold of that dream. Such a meditative, dreamy tale with a small protagonist we immediately care for and root for. It’s a charming story for any child ages 4 and up, and is able to help us truly see the people around us, each with hidden hopes and dreams.

The Old Woman, written by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Nahid Kazemi
published in 2020 by Groundwood Books

Almost entirely, children’s picture books feature kids as protagonists, even if sometimes the characters are drawn as animals.  Many years ago, however, a few of my children’s favorite picture books starred older women. Emma, by Wendy Kesselman, I Know an Old Lady, by Charlotte Zolotow, and Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney all come to mind and were top favorites for all of us. (Find all of them in my post here.)

Joanne Schwartz’s story not only features an elderly woman as protagonist, there is not a single child in the book.  Only this quiet, content woman and her faithful dog.  As in Miyakoshi’s work, Kazemi’s illustration style — smeary, fuzzy line, abstracted shapes, charcoal drawings infused with gentle blush rose, chartreuse, spring green — conveys serenity. Our unnamed woman appears small and perhaps frail in the landscapes of her woodsy world.

The story simply follows her for one autumn ramble with her sweet old dog up into the hillsides near her home. Its pacing is as unhurried as her gait; its observations as lyrical, languid, appreciative. The action opens and closes with the slow-moving habits, contentment, companionship of this old couple — woman and dog — in their simple home. Realistic, with no pretense or flash.

There are plenty of stories featuring jolly grandparents. This one offers children a different way of seeing and appreciating the elderly by showing the grace and dignity of a happy, quiet life. Ages 4 or 5 and up.

The Rock from the Sky, written and illustrated by Jon Klassen
published in 2021 by Candlewick Press

Finally, this cinematic tale exuding the deadpan, absurd humor of Jon Klassen.

The characters include three acquaintances — a turtle, an armadillo, and a snake; a couple of enormous boulders; and a creepy creature from the future — sort of an eye on tall, spidery legs.

It’s a story in five acts which simultaneously revel in the fractiousness and dashed stubbornness that afflict us and our relationships,  press into that funny feeling in our guts that says something is a bit off here, and tilt full bore into the near misses we encounter which leave us wondering how we manage to survive at all.

Klassen does all that in his trademark, pared-back text, bleakish landscapes, and quirky characters in hats. In the first episode, Turtle has a favorite spot. Armadillo has a funny feeling about that spot, though, and tries to encourage Turtle to change it up. As they miscommunicate, we the readers see Impending Doom in the form of a boulder hurtling down from the sky and headed their way. The pacing, page turns, and resolution are superb.

The remaining four stories whisk us into four different scenarios playing with similar ideas.

This may not sound like kids’ fare, and to be honest, it is not a sense of humor and style of storytelling that some very young children will absorb. Its slapstick humor and hair-raising suspense will tickle many a child’s funny bone, though, a bit like Laurel and Hardy moving that piano. Plus, their older siblings and parents will very much enjoy this as well. Try it with ages 5 and up.

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Coming up on my blog — some gorgeous books with moving parts, my last yard restoration update of this growing season, and books for all ages teaching us about racism.

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